As everyone in the United States possesses the right to legal representation, attorneys play a vital role in the American legal system. These professionals interpret the law and aid clients caught up in legal disputes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, attorneys benefit from a strong job projection and relatively high median salary. Individuals considering the substantial time and financial investment needed to pursue a career as an attorney can find plenty of information in this guide, and the websites linked below. Keep reading to learn more.
What Does an Attorney Do?
In short, attorneys practice law, typically by representing clients with legal issues, often in court. Clients may include individuals, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and government agencies. A considerable amount of a lawyers' daily responsibilities include conducting research, filing lawsuits, and preparing wills, contracts, and deeds.
An attorney career has many potential emphases and specializations. A legal student might pursue civil rights, communications, taxation, real estate, or intellectual property law, to name a few examples. Additionally, each specific field of law comes with unique job responsibilities. Family lawyers might give clients legal advice about divorce or adoption. Tax lawyers advise corporations on their tax obligations.
In addition, many lawyers find employment with government agencies. While prosecutors charge people who break the law on behalf of government organizations, public defense attorneys provide legal services for people who cannot afford to hire private lawyers. These attorneys work at the local, state, and federal levels.
Learn More About Attorney Careers
For those considering an attorney career, the following link describes what attorneys do, the soft and hard skills they need to succeed, and requirements to enter the field.Attorney Job Description: What You’ll Do
Attorney Salary and Job Growth
The time and finances required to successfully complete law school are a considerable investment. Therefore, aspiring attorneys should evaluate potential salaries to determine whether the investment is right for them. Keep in mind, predicting future pay does not follow a simple formula. Salaries vary by location, education level, and experience. It also depends on what type of law is being practiced. Corporate lawyers, trial attorneys, and medical lawyers tend to earn more than public defenders, for example.
Learn More About Attorney Salaries
The following resource provides information on attorney salaries. The page offers salary and job growth data, comparing and contrasting the earning potential of various career paths within the industry.Attorney Job Salary: What You’ll Earn
What made you decide to pursue a career as an attorney? Was it something that you were always interested in?
I decided to become an attorney because I’ve always been interested in the US Constitution and national security. In particular, I wanted to learn about the balance between liberty and security. You need to have security to preserve liberty from those who wish to take it away, but you must do so in a way where the security itself does not destroy liberty.
Why did you decide to practice criminal defense? How is this unique from other branches of law?
I actually went into law expecting to be a career prosecutor, and at the start of my legal career, all of my experience was in criminal prosecution. Through an unexpected career detour, I had the opportunity to work briefly for a criminal defense attorney where I discovered that I enjoyed criminal defense even more than prosecution. While there is a lot I like about criminal prosecution, in criminal defense you have more autonomy and flexibility in both your work and lifestyle. Furthermore, prosecutors typically operate in a high volume of cases, while in defense you have fewer cases so each client gets more attention. (This is true in private practice. For public defenders, it can be very different.)
What is the most rewarding aspect of being an attorney? The most challenging aspects?
The most rewarding aspect of criminal defense is preserving a client’s life, career, and freedom. What I mean by this is that in addition to the obvious consequence of being incarcerated if convicted, a criminal conviction can have serious collateral consequences which can permanently change someone’s life. Examples of this include being fired from work or denied future job opportunities, evicted from housing or expelled or denied entry into schools, denial of professional licensure, loss of firearms rights, and of course a stigma of being a convicted criminal. While there are truly evil people who are a danger to society, over 90% of my clients are good people who made a bad decision, and I do what I can to make sure it does not permanently alter their lives and limit their future opportunities. I have represented many persons who today are servicemembers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, CEOs, tradesmen, retail entrepreneurs and other areas who would not be where they are today had they been convicted as charged.
The most challenging aspect can be high stakes and pressure. The first reason for this is because the stakes are very high for my clients, who have a lot riding on the outcome of their case. The second reason for the pressure is for lawyers in private practice to get enough clients to make a living. Like any profession, having your own business can be both rewarding but very high stress, because your success or failure to earn a living falls squarely on your shoulders.
Why did you decide to move into teaching criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University?
I have always enjoyed teaching. When I was younger and played soccer, I’d teach soccer as a counselor at a summer camp. Now that I’m a lawyer, I get the joy of passing on my knowledge of the law to university students. You can call it a nerdy hobby, the same way other people play softball. I also find teaching at VCU deeply meaningful because so many of my students have gone on to have careers in criminal justice and homeland security. In fact, sometimes I even see my former students at court when they’re in local law enforcement! It feels good knowing that my students go out into the world and into professions where they keep us safe and serve their communities.
What skills are necessary for individuals who want to work as a criminal justice attorney?
You must be dedicated to the rule of law. In court, we follow the rules, and sometimes we like the outcome it yields and sometimes we do not. Regardless of personal feeling, you must put your feelings aside and work with the law as it is, and not as you wish it to be. For example, the rule of law may dictate that evidence is suppressed, and a criminal will get away with a crime. For a prosecutor, you can’t take that personally and let it interfere with your work. Similarly, on the defense side, there are legal technicalities which result in persons being charged with things which should not be crimes, or facing mandatory minimums which are completely out of proportion to your client’s action.
Over 90% of cases are plea bargained, rather than going to trial. This means that relationships matter. Despite the stereotype on television of the sleazy defense attorney or underhanded prosecutor, those people do not last long because no one wants to work with them. The most successful prosecutors and defense attorneys are the ones with good people skills. This means that you can both get along and push back to fight for your cause, but do so in a polite and professional way that builds bridges with opposing counsel. For example, I may have a case where the facts and law clearly show my client is guilty as charged, but because of my client’s personal situation, I may need a different outcome. When this happens, I will work collaboratively with the prosecution to find a way to find a proper punishment which serves the interests of justice for the offense committed but doing so in a way which meets my client’s needs. For example, I represented a doctor who did something stupid and if convicted as charged, would have lost her medical license. I worked with the prosecution to come up with an alternative punishment so that she would still pay for her actions, but not lose her ability to practice medicine.
Lastly, you cannot be afraid to go to trial. Every decision about a case, such as whether or not to take a deal, what strategy to approach it with, and everything else about it is all based on the question: What would happen at a trial? If you’re unwilling to go to trial and just want to get plea deals done, you are doing your clients a disservice; furthermore, prosecutors will not make a good plea offers for your clients because they know you’re more likely to take them than a lawyer who would fight it out. Prosecutors operate in volume, so they depend on people accepting plea deals.
What advice would you give to aspiring attorneys?
If you want to be a lawyer, do well in college and get top scores on the LSAT. This way, you will have more options for the school you want to go to, as well as get more scholarship offers. Graduating with little debt will give you more flexibility for your career. In law school, get real-world legal experience through internships. The best experience you can get in law school is by actually trying cases, so get internships with the local prosecutor or public defender office.
Any last thoughts for us?
Criminal practice is one of the most stressful areas of law. Whether you are the prosecutor or defense attorney, literally, a person’s future and freedom are on the line. There is little room for error, and you owe it to your client to get the best outcome possible.
Take the Next Steps
People serious about becoming attorneys can prepare themselves by doing their research. Luckily, they can find many online resources giving specific details about legal and criminal justice degrees and jobs. The two links below outline important information about careers in law.
Explore Degrees in Legal StudiesThis resource breaks down a typical bachelor's degree in legal studies. It describes example courses and concentrations, in addition to information on tuition costs, tuition financing opportunities, and program lengths.
Explore Other Careers in Criminal JusticeThis webpage lists several potential degrees in the criminal justice field at associate, bachelor's, and graduate degree levels. The resource also gives detailed information on potential law enforcement and legal careers within the field.
Professional Organizations and Resources for Attorneys
Professional associations aid law students and attorneys by giving them networking opportunities and legal resources. These organizations offer several tools to help professionals stay informed, like continuing education courses, trade journals and publications, and podcasts. These groups offer many advantages to law students, too. Students and recent graduates can meet with professionals at conferences and workshops, and they can search for jobs through career portals. Students can often find scholarship funding opportunities too. Individuals still in college or law school typically receive discounted membership rates and conference tickets.
- American Bar Association This group not only provides law school accreditation, but also offers benefits to its professional members. For instance, members can attend webinars and teleconferences, access job postings, and join niche groups focusing on specific types of law, like business or family law.
- The American Association for Justice This group specifically serves trial attorneys and promotes a fair and effective justice system. The organization hosts two major conferences, promotes legal research, and offers scholarships for law students.